ALBANY – A state judge next week will hear arguments in a lawsuit that contends the state has illegally expended funds promoting a casino expansion plan that the Cuomo administration is asking voters to approve next month in a statewide referendum.
The new litigation, filed in State Supreme Court in Albany, contends the state Board of Elections spent money on state workers’ salaries when it devised what critics claim is a ballot question akin to a push poll meant to put a rosy spin on the prospect of new casino development in the state.
If the ballot language is not changed to a more neutral-sounding question, the casino issue should be removed from this year’s ballot, the litigation seeks.
“While we know that the casinos control the odds of a particular outcome, we expect our government to level the playing field in administering ballots,’’ legal papers filed in the case state.
The litigation came as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget office released its estimate Wednesday of the fiscal impact for localities if the first four of seven eventual casinos are located in the upstate regions proposed by the governor. In all, the statewide fiscal impact will be $430 million annually, the administration projected.
Of the $430 million in projected annual revenues, $238 million would go to public school funding and $192 million to local government aid.
Western New York is excluded under a deal Cuomo struck with the Seneca Nation to preserve its casino exclusivity arrangement, but all counties in the region will share an estimated $50.4 million in the Seneca revenue-sharing proceeds instead of just Niagara Falls, Buffalo and Salamanca.
When the school aid money is included, the budget division, for instance, projects Erie County will get a total of $22 million annually if the casino referendum is approved, with Niagara County getting $28 million. For New York City, adding upstate casinos would bring an additional $94 million a year in additional school aid.
The new lawsuit was brought by Eric Snyder, a Brooklyn lawyer whose expertise by day is in complex commercial bankruptcy cases. He said he is acting on his own in bringing the lawsuit against the co-chairmen of the Elections Board and brought the case only after seeing what he called egregious advocacy language the agency approved to be placed on ballots.
“It’s not appropriate under the constitution to use public funds to get the public to vote a specific way. This is a constitutional amendment, for heaven’s sake,”’ said Snyder, who is a 1987 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School and is the head of a Manhattan law firm’s bankruptcy unit.
At issue is the wording adopted in July by the Elections Board to be placed on ballots for voters to consider. Instead of approving neutral-sounding language as proposed by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, the board told local county boards across the state to print ballots that critics say put a positive spin on the casino question in order to increase its odds for passage.
The ballot language asks if voters support or oppose up to seven new casinos in New York “for the legislated purposes of promoting job growth, increasing aid to schools, and permitting local governments to lower property taxes through revenues generated.”
In a Siena College poll earlier this week, 46 percent supported and 46 percent opposed casino expansion when asked a neutral-sounding question about the issue. But when Siena pollsters asked the question using the words that will be contained on the November ballot, support shot to 55 percent and opposition declined to 42 percent.